The returnee conundrum: threat or opportunity?

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  • Sunday, 18 Aug 2019

To forgive and reform?: Quite a number of the returnees are jihadi widows, who were possibly lured to Syria for love and the false assurances of their jihadi husbands.— Filepic

MALAYSIA’s decision to reopen its doors to citizens who had left to join the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group in Syria has sparked a national outcry over potential security risks.

The return of these individuals, many of whom still espouse their violent radical beliefs, could endanger society as they might be driven to orchestrate terror attacks locally, or even influence their friends and family to do so.

While Malaysia has been fortunate not to experience a full-scale terror attack, there are far too many grim reminders close to home. The tragic attacks on places of worship in New Zealand, Sri Lanka, Philippines and Indonesia have reinforced just how deadly the violent extremist threat can be.

If anything, these attacks have heightened fears that Malaysia could very well be next, especially when recent developments indicate an IS pivot to Southeast Asia as its next bastion.

So when Special Branch Counter Terrorism director Datuk Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay announced earlier this year that the police were looking to bring back some 51 Malaysian IS members who are stranded in Syria, the immediate reaction was expectedly one of shock and trepidation.

Of course, this does not mean they get to walk right back into their old lives. The condition is that returnees will be made to undergo a one-month government-run rehabilitation programme, and have their state of mind assessed by clerics and psychologists for persisting signs of radical ideology.

Meanwhile, the more hardcore returnees – those who engaged in active combat or militancy – will be rightfully detained and charged in court.

Malaysia now faces a dilemma similar to one that confronts the international community: Should it welcome back its citizens and take responsibility for their well-being? Or should it strip them of citizenship (like the Netherlands and the UK have done), effectively washing its hands off their fate?

The popular opinion in this case is that these ‘terrorists’ should not be allowed to return at all costs. Their motives are unpredictable – although they may have disengaged from violence and renounced their allegiance to IS, it does not mean they have been deradicalised.

Similarly, question marks linger behind the rationale of welcoming back individuals who were prepared to turn their backs on Malaysia forever.

There is a sense that they only wish to return now because there is no future for them in Syria. It has been reported that most of them are currently holed up in deplorable conditions at Syrian camps for displaced IS followers since the group surrendered its final pockets of territory in early 2019.

At first glance, therefore, it seems premature to suggest that these individuals are truly repentant. But while accepting them back poses serious risks, there are several opportunities here that need to be considered as a counter-weight.

From a counter-terorrism standpoint alone, the return of these Malaysians will enable the authorities to interrogate them and delve deeper into their motivations for joining IS, commonly referred to as the ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors.

Ultimately, this will help Malaysia identify at-risk populations and design targeted long-term strategies to prevent violent extremism.

Through the testimonies these returnees offer, whether its of life in conflict-ridden Syria or the day-to-day operations within IS-administered territories, the police would gain valuable intelligence to aid the global war against terrorism.

Secondly, these individuals should be welcomed back on the basis of protecting their civil liberties. Despite the nature of the offence, stripping them of their nationality and denying them the chance to return would be unfair, not to mention heavy-handed.

Instead, they should be brought back to face the consequences of their actions through the rightful legal channels, as is afforded to other criminals under the justice system.

It is also worth noting that individual involvement in violent extremist organisations is a very nuanced process. IS followers cannot all be lumped together as professing the same level of support or involvement with the group’s activities and ideology.

For instance, at least one third of those waiting to return comprise of children. Surely we are not suggesting that they possess the same radical inclinations that classify as a threat to society.

Quite a number of them are also young women, who were possibly lured to Syria for love and the false assurances of their jihadi husbands. Their husbands are now dead, and they are trapped there despite never fully embracing IS’ violent beliefs.

Hence, the bottom line is that it would be impetuous and unjust to paint these women and children with the same brush as some of the more hardcore IS followers. They are not beyond help, and we should at least try to offer them a new lease on life.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, allowing them to come home is the most humane thing to do, and a decision that reflects our forgiving nature as a nation.

Most of these individuals travelled to Syria for a host of reasons that ultimately boiled down to the fact that they lost faith in the state and became detached from their families, friends and society at large.

As such, denying them the right to return will only reinforce the very convictions that drove them to leave in the first place. What is needed is a reconciliation plan that promotes alternative non-violent platforms for them to voice their grievances.

After all, subscribing to radical ideology is not an offence per se, as long as one does not espouse violent acts and is able to peacefully coexist with others of different beliefs.

Furthermore, in dealing with individuals who are already filled with hate and enmity towards the state – IS’ ideology views the modern secular state as a ‘taghut’ (oppressive) regime – the best thing the state can do is to respond with kindness and compassion.

That way, the state effectively demonstrates to IS supporters that it is not the enemy as perceived, and can be fair even to those who have denounced it. Who knows, maybe that may be enough to persuade them to abandon their violent extremist beliefs.

The government’s decision to welcome the returnees home is unquestionably a gamble. But all things considered, there is every likelihood that such a move will ultimately count as a victory for preventing and countering violent extremism (P/CVE) efforts in the region.

Akil Yunus is research manager at IMAN Research, a think tank based in Kuala Lumpur that studies society, religion, and perception. Its primary focus is on preventing and countering violent extremism. The views expressed here are the writer’s own.

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